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Imagining ourselves into existence: First ever Abantu Book Festival in Soweto a roaring success

Words and images by Thato Rossouw

My Own LiberatorUnimportanceSweet MedicineAffluenzaNwelezelangaThe Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other StoriesRapeFlying Above the SkyNight DancerBlack Widow SocietyThe Everyday WifeOur Story Magic

 
“A conquered people often lose the inclination to tell their stories.”

These were the words of former Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke at the inaugural Abantu Book Festival, in discussion with readers about the importance of black people telling their own stories and having spaces where they can share them with one another. “We have stories to tell, they are important, and they are liberating in nature,” he said.

 
Moseneke’s words came as a preamble to compliment the authors Thando Mgqolozana and Panashe Chigumadzi, and the rest of their team members, for organising a festival that not only celebrated black writers, readers, pan-African book stores, and online platforms that celebrate African literature and narratives, but also gave them a safe space to speak freely about the issues they face in their struggle to liberate themselves.

The festival, which was themed “Imagining ourselves into existence”, came as a result of Mgqolozana’s decision early last year to renounce white colonial literary festivals. In an interview with The Daily Vox in May last year, Mgqolozana told Theresa Mallinson that his decision to reject these festivals came from a discomfort with literary festivals where the audience was 80 percent white. “It’s in a white suburb in a white city. I feel that I’m there to perform for an audience that does not treat me as a literary talent, but as an anthropological subject,” he said.

 
The three-day festival took place at two venues: the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre, which hosted free events during the day, and the Soweto Theatre, which hosted events in the evening. These evening festivities cost R20 per person and featured over 50 poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, literary scholars, screenwriters, performing artists and children’s writers from across Africa and the diaspora. Some of the writers and artists who were present at the festival include Niq Mhlongo, Unathi Magubeni, Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, Thandiswa Mazwai, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Lebogang Mashile and Chika Unigwe, among many others.

 
The first day of the festival began with a discussion featuring four black female Fallist writers, Dikeledi Sibanda, Mbali Matandela, Sandy Ndelu and Simamkele Dlakavu, titled “Writing and Rioting Black Womxn in the time of Fallism”. The discussion covered topics ranging from the role of the body, particularly the naked body, in challenging old narratives, to writing and rioting as acts of activism. It was then followed by a highly attended talk with Justice Moseneke entitled “Land and Liberation”, a concert by the group Zuko Collective at the Soweto Theatre, as well as speeches and performances at the opening night show.

Some of the riveting discussions at the festival were titled: “Land and Liberation”, “Women of Letters”, “Writing Today”, “Cut! Our Stories on Stage and Screen”, “Ghetto is Our First Love”, “Creating Platforms for Our Stories” and “Writing Stories Across and Within Genres”. The festival also included seven documentary screenings, poetry performances, a writing masterclass with Angela Makholwa and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, and performances every night at the Soweto Theatre by Zuko Collective.

 
Dr Gcina Mhlophe gave the keynote address at the festival’s opening night, which was preceded by the singing of the decolonised national anthem and a rendition of the poem “Water” by poet Koleka Putuma. Mhlophe reminded the audience that, while it is important for us to celebrate young and upcoming artists, it is also important to remember and celebrate those that came before them. She sang and told stories about people like Mariam Tladi and Nokutela Dube and spoke about their role in the development of the arts. Dube was the first wife of Reverend John Langalibalele Dube who was the first President General of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) which was later renamed the African National Congress (ANC).

 
The festival ended with a sold-out event at the Soweto Theatre that featured a discussion on “Native Life in 2016” between Chigumadzi and I’solezwe LesiXhosa editor Unathi Kondile, facilitated by Mashile; a performance by Zuko Collective; and a Literary Crossroads session with Unigwe, facilitated by Ndumiso Ngcobo.
 

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The hashtag #AbantuBookFest was on fire for the duration of the festival and long afterwards:


 
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"I think another country is possible" - Sharlene Swartz's Another Country: Everyday Social Restitution launched in Cape Town

“I think another country is possible” – Sharlene Swartz’s Another Country: Everyday Social Restitution launched in Cape Town“I think another country is possible” – Sharlene Swartz’s Another Country: Everyday Social Restitution launched in Cape Town

 

Another CountryThe Book Lounge recently played host to Sharlene Swartz and many guests at the Launch of Another Country: Everyday Social Restitution.

In conversation with struggle stalwart Denis Goldberg, an impassioned Swartz relayed her experiences as a white woman living in South Africa in relation to the other races in the country.

The Professor of Sociology began by sharing an anecdote of her experience in Zurich where as a 21-year-old white woman she for the first time experienced the hatred and anger of another white person because of apartheid. “He spat on my shoe and slammed the door,” she recalls. It was an eye opening moment for the author who went on to say, “The book is a spit on the shoes of white South Africa.”

Swartz explained that the book aims to restore humanity and to encourage dialogue between South Africans who wouldn’t generally speak to one another. She asked average, everyday South Africans what kind of South Africa they would like and summarised their responses: “Everyone wanted a country where they could feel like they belong.”

“I think another country is possible” – Sharlene Swartz’s Another Country: Everyday Social Restitution launched in Cape Town“I think another country is possible” – Sharlene Swartz’s Another Country: Everyday Social Restitution launched in Cape Town

 

According to the research Swartz carried out while writing the book, close to 70 per cent of South Africans say that “we should forget the past and move on”. The book asks: “How do we move on when so many black South Africans are living an inferior reality?”

After a detailed introduction to the book and the questions it seeks to answer, Swartz revealed the crux of the book, suggesting that “everyone can do something [about restitution], not just the government”. She proposes a working definition for social restitution as, “Acts and attitudes towards making things right for the past … to recognise human dignity.”

After Swartz’s brief introduction and summary of the book, she invited Goldberg to comment on the current social situation within the Country. The founder of the organisation, Community HEART reminded the audience that, “the apartheid regime killed between ten and twelve thousand people, yet people still talk about a bloodless revolution.” He argued that “this is one of the causes of anger today – saying black blood doesn’t matter”.

Further defining social restitution, Goldberg puts forward that “we know what our society ought to be and also what it is … we need to bridge the gap between is and ought through social action ie social restitution”. Goldberg describes the book as, “refreshing and remarkable” saying: “Sharlene has shown us how to speak frankly.”

Another Country recommends about 200 practical, financial, and symbolic ideas that regular South Africans can use towards social restitution. Swartz also introduced an app that allows one to find these numerous suggestions. The book synopsis concludes, “There is something for everyone to do – individuals and communities, alongside government and institutional efforts.”

Swartz closed off the evening saying, “I think another country is possible, that’s why I wrote the book.”

Kasuba Stuurman (‏@kasuba_sun) tweeted live from the event:


 

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Lauding a "superhuman effort": Sol Plaatje's Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present launched at Wits

Lauding Sol Plaatje “superhuman effort”: Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present launched at Wits

 
Sol Plaatje's Native Life in South AfricaSol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present, a new book looking at Sol Plaatje’s most famous work, was recently launched at Wits University.

Authored by various South African academics and edited by Janet Remmington, Brian Willan and Bhekizizwe Peterson, the book is a selection of essays. Khwezi Mkhize and Peter Limb are among the contributors.

Plaatje was a journalist and founding Secretary General of the African National Congress, then the South African Native National Congress.

Lauding Sol Plaatje “superhuman effort”: Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present launched at Wits

 

Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa was published during World War I, at a time when the country was under British rule, said Willan, editor and contributor to the current book. Native Life had been written in response to the Natives Land Act passed in 1913, Willan said. In the ensuing years, Plaatje would write the book during a state of emergency and time of duress.

Lauding Sol Plaatje “superhuman effort”: Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present launched at Wits

 
Plaatje had published the book despite many obstacles stacked against him, Willan said. Little money, travelling on horseback to record the impact of the Natives Land Act on black people, and facing critics who didn’t want the book published were just some of the challenges in Plaatje’s way.

Willan called Plaatje’s determination a “superhuman effort”.

“We should think of the story behind the book,” Willan said. “It’s amazing, what Plaatje had to do to publish a book. It could easily not have happened.”

Lauding Sol Plaatje “superhuman effort”: Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present launched at Wits

 

Mkhize said he had at first been disappointed in reading Native Life, finding the book “longwinded” and “weird”. But after getting over the initial disappointment, Mkhize said he believes Native Life could be useful “to figure what other kind of thoughts and imaginaries” are possible.

And while Plaatje’s efforts to convince the British government to repeal the Act failed, Mkhize said they inspired him regardless.

Mkhize’s essay in the book is titled “African Intellectual History, Black Cosmopolitanism and Native Life in South Africa”.

2016 marks Native Life’s first centennial.

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Zapiro launches his new book Dead President Walking at The Market Theatre

Dead President Walking

 
Jonathan Shapiro, the cartoonist popularly known as Zapiro, launched his new book, Dead President Walking, at the John Kani Theatre at the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg recently.

 

The book could have been titled “Buy the Beloved Country” in reference to Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and the alleged Gupta influence on national issues, Shapiro said.

But because the state capture report had been the biggest story of the year, with potential to ultimately topple Jacob Zuma, Shapiro had decided to focus on the president instead. And while the African National Congress (ANC) at times criticised itself, Shapiro said the party finds it difficult to deal with ridicule and differing opinions.

Shapiro produced a few giggles from the audience when he presented his most provocative cartoons, which he accompanied with sometimes cutting commentary.

Former president Thabo Mbeki was “Mr Paranoid”. His successor, Zuma, “Mr Complete Idiot”. University activist, Chumani Maxwele, “an interesting guy, but a bit psychotic”. Hlaudi Motsoeneng, now head of Corporate Affairs at the SABC “thinks he’s God”.

 

Another public figure to have been subjected to Shapiro’s ridicule is Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. While the pair have sorted out their differences, Shapiro believes Dikgang Moseneke, the former Deputy Chief Justice, would have made a better Chief Justice.

Asked whether he didn’t find his work hurtful to targets, invading their privacy, Shapiro said that because they are public figures, “I absolutely don’t care.”

 

Zuma has sued Shapiro in the past, but Shapiro stands by work – no matter how offensive. He did however single out a cartoon that “brought him grief”. The cartoon depicted Shaun Abrahams as a monkey and Zuma an organ grinder.

Black people had been offended and called him racist, he said. But people who subscribed to this view had selective memory, Shapiro insists, as his work has depicted and ridiculed those who stepped out of line regardless of race.

 

“The real racists are out there,” he said, adding that it was unfair to be compared to Penny Sparrow, a former estate agent who came under fire for describing black people as monkeys earlier in the year.

Themba Siwela, cartoonist with the Citizen newspaper, found nothing wrong with the cartoon. But Shapiro could have looked at the “timing” before publishing, Siwela believes.

Shapiro said cartoonists have an important role to play in any democracy, and that South Africa is one of the countries in the world that has made an impact with its cartoons.

“We put a lot of pressure on someone who is stepping out of line.”

 

Elections produce rich material for cartoonists, Shapiro said: “Local government elections are hot stuff.”

In one “hot” cartoon, Shapiro shows Motsoeneng approving good news footage and ignoring violent protests. But Shapiro condemns destructive protests, and believes it is counterproductive to burn things.

On last year’s statue demolitions, Shapiro said the statues had no right to be in prominent sites: “Why the hell should they be in our urban spaces?”

 

Zapiro also revealed his naughty side – a side his editors and lawyers have to put up with when dealing with him. “There’s a certain adrenaline fighting editors and lawyers,” he grinned.

Deadlines were a pain, he said, commenting that sometimes his cartoons would be late or just in time for publication.

Dead President Walking is Zuma’s 21st annual; “A remarkable feat for anyone to achieve,” Jacana, his publisher, said.

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'Rhodes Must Fall made it possible for us to imagine these things' - Abantu Book Festival launched in Soweto

Thando Mgqolozana

 
The Abantu Book Festival was officially launched at the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre in Soweto this afternoon.

The festival is the brainchild of Thando Mgqolozana, who explained how and why it came about.

Why Abantu?

I named the festival Abantu because I could not think of any other festival that was focusing on black people – that was created for and by black people – and I wanted to create that.

I was absolutely tired of always begging to be integrated more comfortably into coloniality. I realised that I was ashamed, actually, that we had been begging to be integrated into coloniality. It’s like asking to be put nicely into a fire. It’s not going to end well. You are going to burn.

So I wanted to walk away from the fire. I wanted to create a different kind of fire, for abantu and by abantu.

Thando Mgqolozana

 

Mgqolozana first conceptualised the Abantu Book Festival on Facebook, creating it as a purely imaginary event. One year later, it is a reality.

“I’m a fiction writer, so I know what it means to imagine something into existence, I’ve done it many times,” he said.

“I have written books that were just fleeting ideas, and you write it and you publish it and it affects real people in their real lives.”

Images: Abantu Book Festival on Facebook

 

Mgqolozana also thanked Rhodes Must Fall and the young people of South Africa for creating an environment in which a festival like Abantu can feel possible.

“If we had tried to do something like this five years ago, it would probably not have happened. But Rhodes Must Fall created the context for us, made it possible for us, to imagine these things. Rhodes Must Fall made it possible for us to imagine things that are not framed by coloniality.

“So I want to thank the young people for affording us the opportunity to dream and hope, and be able to deal with our pain in a different way from before.”

Mgqolozana is the author of three novels, A Man Who is Not a Man, Hear Me Alone and Unimportance. He said he finds it unacceptable that the people he has written for and about do not have access to his work.

“I write about the people I was born with, I was raised with, the people in my street. It makes me so angry that these people cannot access this literature. And it is not by accident, it is by design. I cannot accept that. I cannot keep on writing about these people and for these people and not do anything about the fact that they cannot access this literature.

“I would really love to just be a writer and just be in my imagination the whole time. But I think I was born in a time that requires me to do more than just that.

“We have libraries in all black communities now, and if you go to any of them you will find that there is an African fiction section. We shouldn’t have an African fiction section in Africa: that should be the standard. It reminds me of the Homelands Act; the rest of the space belongs to other people.

“So it is my mission to change this thing. I am not going to do it alone. I am going to require all of your support.”

Panashe Chigumadzi

 

Panashe Chigumadzi, the festival curator, explained the thinking behind this year’s theme: Our Stories.

“A key part of our thinking around Abantu Book Festival and how we can remove the alienation that many of us as black people have around literature and books is to try and destabilise the centrality of the book,” she said.

“Yes, it is Abantu Book Festival, but we want to remind ourselves that storytelling is very much a part of what it is to be black people and it’s always been part of our cultures.”

Chigumadzi stressed that Abantu Book Festival should be a safe space for difficult conversations, and emphasised its zero tolerance policy to sexual harrassment and other kinds of prejudice.

“When we are creating these spaces for black people and new visions of futures, it is important that all black people are recognised, all of our humanity is recognised, and it is not only for a particular kind of blackness.

“We are really interested in having important, necessary, uncomfortable, robust but loving conversations amongst us as black people, that really is the important part about this. This is for us. All those things that we haven’t been able to say, we’d like this to be the kind of space that we can talk about them, and be able to challenge each other in the ways that we often can’t.”

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Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer) tweeted live from the launch:

Follow @projectjennifer on Twitter for more

 

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Writing in English is a waste of ink if we consider the shortage of books in African languages - Vonani Bila at the launch of A Ri Hlanhlekangi

By Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho

Writing in English is a waste of ink if we consider the shortage of books in African languages.

- Poet and publisher Vonani Bila during the launch of Samuel Malamulele Risenga’s Xitsonga autobiography, A Ri Hlanhlekangi

Launch of A Ri Hlanhlekangi
Moses Mtileni, Valerie Risenga (author’s wife), Prof. Samuel Malamulele Risenga and Vonani Bila

 

Professor Samuel Malamulele Risenga, who is head of the Department of Paediatric Pulmonology and Allergy at the University of Limpopo and at the Polokwane Provincial Hospital, has just launched his autobiography, A Ri Hlanhlekangi.

What makes his story unique is that he has written the book in his mother tongue, Xitsonga.

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It took Risenga about five years to finish the book, and he says the writing experience was full of emotion because he was reliving things he went through in his life, both good and bad.

“I would at times feel sad and at times feel happy for having overcome obstacles on the way,” he said.

Risenga decided to write his autobiography in Xitsonga because he says he can express himself much better in the language.

“The other reason is that there is a need to promote our indigenous languages,” he said. “If we do not do that, these languages will slowly be forgotten. Our languages are actually very rich in expression and this needs to be maintained.”

He said that the book showed that poverty should not be a determining factor in terms of achievement. It is possible to make it against all odds. “I would like to recommend it to the youth as it is an inspirational work,” he said.

Samuel Malamulele Risenga

 

The book was launched a fortnight ago at a glittering evening at Oasis Hotel in Giyani. The launch was well attended by professionals across many fields and community members who all came to celebrate a life told on paper and told in the language of the people. A talented Afro-soul singer, Mphuzi Chauke (below), rendered some songs during the launch.

Mphuzi ChaukeAttendees who had read the book before the launch all praised Risenga for his amazing use of the Xitsonga language in telling his story. Some even quoted from the book, while others spoke fondly about certain parts or chapters that they had found entertaining or touching.

A prominent poet and publisher, Vonani Bila, said that the significance of writing an autobiography was that your adventures in life were preserved for posterity.

“Although not every life lived bears the same weight, it is nonetheless crucial to record each life using your own pen so that your life is not misrepresented by secondary observers,” Bila indicated. “Of greater importance is to write in our indigenous languages, which carry the richness of cultural expression. Writing in English is a waste of ink if we consider the shortage of books in African languages.”

The director of Nhlalala Books, Moses Mtileni (below), who published the autobiography, said that A Ri Hlanhlekangi was one of only a handful of books in the genre in the Xitsonga language, with the ones preceding it published largely pre-1994. “A Ri Hlanhlekangi is published as part of Nhlalala Books’s effort at pushing boundaries in the language, publishing genres neglected and experimental works in other genres,” he stated.

Nhlalala Books' publisher Moses Mtileni

 

The publisher’s statement on the book reads:

It was his N’wa-Khimbini, when asked to name the son of Ben and Rossy Makhanani Makhubele, who said: “We will call him Buwa, a particle of soil, it will crumble like the two before it. She referred here to his two late brothers who had died in infancy. But it is 66 years today, and Buwa (Samuel Malamulele Risenga) has not crumbled. Hence the title, A Ri Hlanhlekangi (It has not crumbled). He has wrestled poverty, having lost his father at around age 14, leaving school at some point to work as a builder to save for school fees and accommodation. He reflects on the forced migration following the adoption of the Group Areas Act, on the challenges of studying medicine in the Black Section of the University of Natal, the inspiration he drew from the Chris Barnard story. It is story of triumph and loss, of perseverance and patience and a deeper thirst for learning and service.

Those interested in A Ri Hlanhlekangi can contact the publisher at nhlalalabooks@gmail.com or 0725943448.

nullThe Violent Gestures of LifeA Traumatic RevengeTshifhiwa Given Mukwevho is the author of A Traumatic Revenge and The Violent Gestures of Life, and a Tshivenda novel, A Thi Nga Tendi, which he serialised on Facebook.
 
 
 

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